COLUMN: CMU's commencement this year was special. I hope it stays that way.
On a warm, sunny May 4, Central Michigan University looked the same as is has for many commencement ceremonies. Academic buildings were closed and residence halls were emptying.
Broomfield Street was backed up for more than a block as every car made a U-Turn in front of 7/11 to find parking near the Student Activity Center. Campus landmarks like the seal, Warriner Hall and the new brick signs on the north and south ends of campus had lines of graduates in their caps and gowns. Parents with cameras were waiting to snap a photo to commemorate the day.
As hundreds of nicely-dressed families poured into the entrance of McGuirk Arena, they made plans for who would save seats, who would get popcorn and who would hold the camera. Many of them also made note of where the nearest restrooms were, knowing they were in for a long ceremony.
Commencement is supposed to be a joyous, celebratory event for graduates and their families. Some parents are returning to their alma mater to watch their children graduate; some graduates are the first in their family to earn a degree; some families flew in from different time zones.
Commencement is a very special day for everyone involved.
However, the ceremony doesn't always feel very special. It is heavily scripted. Sometimes it feels routine, just with different speakers. At its worst, a commencement can feel boring and tedious.
I ended up covering three of the five commencement ceremonies between May 3-5. I expected to hear a bunch of generic phrases about following dreams and using your degree for good. I was prepared to listen just long enough to get the 150 words I needed to write for each ceremony.
Luckily, the ceremonies were not what I expected. They were fun, exciting and memorable.
Instead of eyes glazing over, there was laughter. Instead of remarks clearly read from a script, President Bob Davies personalized each ceremony. He highlighted some graduates and shared their personal stories with the audience.
At the doctoral ceremony on Friday, Davies introduced one graduate and her grandfather. He said he spoke to her grandfather before the ceremony and made plans to go fly fishing with him over the summer. Davies lightheartedly addressed a graduate at the 9 a.m. ceremony who invoiced him for the classes she missed during the five snow days this semester.
At the 6 p.m. ceremony, he arranged for basketball star Reyna Frost's family to come down to the floor to give her a hug. "This is probably the first time you've been in this arena without the basketball hoops," he said. He proceeded to tell the audience about Frost's dream to become an astronaut and walk on Mars.
These were even some special moments that made those in attendance, including myself, tear up. It was really sweet knowing Davies had talked to students between ceremonies – although I have no idea how he had time for that – and took notes about their conversations that he used during the ceremony.
Of course, the most special moment during commencement weekend was when Davies recognized Stephan JoQuan Wilson and his mother, Sharonda Wilson. Davies told the audience that Sharonda was missing her own Ferris State University commencement ceremony to be at CMU with her son.
Davies heard about their story and wanted to make sure she got her degree without delay. He contacted Ferris State President David Eisler and asked for permission to confer Sharonda's degree for her.
In case you haven't seen it, or just want to cry happy tears by watching it again, here is the video of that special moment.
As soon as the ceremony ended, Central Michigan University shared that video on social media. I saw it in my Facebook Newsfeed about an hour after it was posted. It already had more than 7,000 views. Two hours later, 16,000 views. By the next day, it appeared in my newsfeed at least 10 times and was being shared by media outlets like MLive and the Detroit Free Press. A day later, NowThis posted the video. By Tuesday, BuzzFeed News and CNN posted stories on social media. Almost two weeks later, the Wilson family's story is still showing up on broadcast news channels.
I doubt that every CMU commencement will receive as much national attention as this one, but that's OK. I want to thank President Davies for making that day so special for Stephen, Sharonda and many other families.
I saw graduates posting on social media about how cool it was that this happened at their graduation ceremony. Even though they weren't the ones being highlighted, they still felt special by witnessing such a kind gesture during their ceremony. None of those graduates will forget that commencement ceremony.
As I think about my own commencement coming up next May, I hope it will include these personal touches. I probably won't remember who the speaker was or which degrees were awarded, but I will remember the jokes that made everyone erupt with laughter and the personal moments that moved us to tears.